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On the trail with Lewis & Clark

Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West (G) (42 min.) _ Some history bears repeating, especially when the IMAX format can provide a backdrop as expansive as that history deserves. Even that grand projection process barely does justice to the adventures of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the explorers who first knew what a bargain the Louisiana Purchase was.

A few months after that deal with France, president Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis to explore the region in search of a northwest passage that would open a trade route to Asia. Three years and more than 8,000 treacherous miles later, Lewis and Clark returned with a literal road map to the future. Along the way, they also established a system of equality that still serves as a model of diversity.

Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West is a brisk retelling of the saga, one of the few times when the 45-minute limitation of IMAX projection (because of the weight of the oversize film on the reel) simply isn't enough to satisfy. National Geographic backed director Bruce Neibaur as he traversed the same path, much of it still as pristine as Lewis, Clark and their crew found it 200 years ago.

Using actors to re-create the trek, Neibaur never misses a chance to display the natural odds working against those explorers. Their chief task was to map out a new frontier they had no idea about. One of the film's telling moments occurs when the expedition scales the top of the steepest mountain it has yet encountered, expecting to see the Pacific Ocean on the other side, but finds only more mountains. They are the first white people to gaze upon the continental divide.

One crew member died, of natural causes, but the danger they faced is obvious. Lewis & Clark was filmed with IMAX cameras dangling over precipices and rushing down water rapids. We don't get to know much about Lewis or Clark aside from their courage. We are introduced to Sacagawea, a pregnant, teenage Shoshone who became their guide and, on at least one occasion, their savior. The cooperative role of American Indians in U.S. westward expansion is not often touched upon in films, but is a nice touch here.

Later, when a team decision must be made, Sacagawea and Clark's longtime slave Pompy participate, making them the first woman and African-American to vote alongside white men in the United States. Small details like that and the huge wilderness Neibaur captures on film make this one of the best history lessons anyone should be reminded of again. A-

_ STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

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